Where Hunting Happens, Conservation Happens™

Tips to Minimize Antler and Horn Shrink

Yes, antlers and horns can and will shrink over time. But there are a few things you can do to help minimize the shrink. 



By PJ Delhomme

There’s a guy I know who only hunts with a bow. He’s got nine animals in the Boone and Crockett records and way more than that in the Pope and Young records. Thirty years ago, he became the first archer to harvest all varieties of North American big game. We call that the Super Slam nowadays. At seventy years young, Chuck Adams has been killing great big animals long before I ever took up a bow, and he knows how to keep those animals “book worthy” from the field to the scoring table. He was more than willing to share a few tips on how to keep the antler, horn, and skull shrink to a minimum. 

Climate and Moisture 

Adams hunts all over, but he has a certain fondness for misery, which is why he heads to Alaska’s Kodiak Island in late-August for Sitka blacktail deer. And it’s here, where 82 inches of rain falls annually, that you can see how climate and moisture affect antler shrinkage. Adams killed three Sitka bucks in velvet this season. The big buck he shot went from a rough green score of 111 down to 108 by the time he got home. Yes, those bucks were in velvet, but that’s quite a bit of drying in a short amount of time. Would a mule deer in velvet killed in Sonora, Mexico shrink as much? I honestly don’t know, but common sense would lean toward less shrinkage. I can tell you that each year Kodiak gets about six more feet of rain than Sonora. 

Adams with his Montana bull taken in 2000.

Hard bone shrinks, too. In 2000, Adams killed what would become the Pope and Young world record typical elk. It now sits at number three in the Pope and Young records and number twenty-one in the Boone and Crockett records, according to Big Game Records LIVE.  As he waited for the drying period, Adams would head out to the shed every week to keep an eye on those antlers. As the days turned to months, he found that the four circumferences on each side shrunk about 1/8-inch, and we’re talking 10- and 9-inch circumferences. “And the length of the points might shrink, too,” said Adams. “I never knew it until I was watching my world record elk, and I was measuring it about every week and that sucker shrank. That bone might be hard, but it still has moisture in it. It does shrink.”

Don’t Cut the Skull 

As if antlers and horns shrinking wasn’t bad enough, there’s more bad news. The sutures in the skull plate shrink, too. There’s cartilage in those sutures, and as that tissue dries, it can be a problem. “I firmly believe that you’re better off if you want max spread on a record animal that you want to leave the full skull and not cut the skull plate,” said Adams. “The skull is going to collapse inward if you cut it.” 

Before he passed away in 2002, Randy Byers served as the President of the Pope and Young Club and Chair of the Boone and Crockett Club’s Records of North American Big Game Committee. Adams said that Byers told him he was doing the right thing by leaving the full skull. Basically, the whole underside of the skull is shrinking, too. By keeping the skull intact, you will keep that tension so the antlers don’t collapse. Of course, if you decide to cut out the skull plate, that’s entirely up to you. But if both Chuck Adams and Randy Byers say not to do it unless you want to lose points, then I would take their word for it. 

Avoid the Boil 


“The thing you don’t want to do is boil anything,” Adams said. “That will really shrink a black bear or mountain lion skull.” Hunters always run the risk of overboiling and ruining it. Plus, there are serious misconceptions regarding boiling and the drying period. For clarity, check out the Boone and Crockett Club’s policy on cleaning skulls for bears, cats, and muskox here

Instead of boiling, take the skull to the local “beetle guy” who uses dermestid beetles to eat every last ounce of flesh off the skull. Or, you can simply rot the flesh off. “I put them outside underwater in the summer for about six weeks or so,” said Adams. Just be sure to keep it out of reach of any curious bears or other opportunistic critters that live nearby. 

Personally, nothing I’ve ever killed has been a trophy contender. I do like the look of a European mount. I prefer beetles, especially after having boiled an elk skull once, which is a time-consuming and messy process. I do know some hunters who get together for a skull-boiling party. Libations might be involved as well as a few not-so-accurate hunting stories. In that case, I’d be tempted to boil again—just maybe not with my future record-book trophy, wherever it might be. 

PJ DelHomme is a writer for Crazy Canyon Media in Missoula, Montana. He regularly contributes content to the Boone and Crockett Club as well as national and regional publications.

Support Conservation

Support Hunting

Support Conservation

Support Education

"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt